Saturday, September 20, 2008

Panama Canal Part 1: Miraflores Locks

The wait is over, I'm finally writing about the Panama Canal! There is too much to write for one entry, so I'll start with a little bit of background and the first two locks. One of the great things about this trip was just learning about the Canal, and seeing it in action made it even more amazing. Disney brought a retired Panama Canal pilot on board, Captain Ken Puckett, to lecture and answer questions on the canal. In three presentations before we even got to the canal, he gave us information on the history and operations of the Canal.

There is a very long history behind the Canal, before the United States ever got involved in 1904. I'll refer you to this article on Wikipedia for the history. One of the more interesting facts that we learned is that the US Army undertook significant projects before building even began to eliminate the mosquitos and improve sanitation to reduce the diseases that would take the lives of many of the workers.

The Canal formally opened on August 15, 1914 and has been in operation almost continually since. A few facts about the canal and our trip through that have stuck with me:

  • There are 3 locks up into Gatun Lake and 3 locks down.
  • The lock system is completely gravity fed from Gatun Lake. It takes 52 million gallons of fresh water from Gatun Lake for a ship to move through the Canal; 26 million on each side.
  • Gatun Lake is man-made, it took 7 years for the lake to fill and has a surface area of 164 square miles. If 40 ships a day (typical) go through the locks, the lake level drops by 2 inches.
  • The locks are constructed of concrete - with no rebar. Think about the fact that these are almost 100 years old now - what a maintenance nightmare that must be!
  • There are 40 pairs of the miter lock gates, which are all original and undergo maintenance every 10 to 15 years.
  • The operation of the Panama Canal is by the independent Panamanian entity, ACP or Panama Canal Authority, who took over from the US on December 31, 1999. The Canal is completely funded by revenue generated from the fees the ships pay to go through the canal.
  • Fees are calculated somehow by the ship size (displacement of water), cargo and revenue-generating rooms. The Disney Magic set a record coming to the West Coast in May with a cost of $331,000. They were predicting it would be higher for our trip through, plus Disney paid a 10% surcharge to have a specific time to start into the locks. Typically, it is first come, first served.

OK, enough facts, how about some pictures? We got up on the top deck just as the ship was heading under the Bridge of the Americas. It was crazy in the front of the ship, people had camped out all night just to be in the front! We headed to the back of the ship, to the Deck 7 Aft viewing platform, a little-known deck that Brandon and I had found through some exploring the day before. This is the furthest back on the ship you can get without having a private room with a balcony. We stayed here because there was a great view of the locks as we moved through, without all of the people. We figured that this was the view that the people on the May cruise heading west camped out for!

It was a beautiful, sunny morning as we approached the locks. Since it is rainy much of the time in Panama, we joked that Disney had special ordered the weather. The ship had picked up our 4 Panama Canal pilots outside of Panama City sometime around 6am and we headed into the first Miraflores lock at around 8:40am, right on schedule. As we moved toward the locks, we could see two other ships in the locks ahead of us. The locks are side by side and typically traffic heads in two directions through them, but today everyone was going the same direction as us. At one time, we could see 4 giant ships at the same time - 2 exiting the second locks and 2 in the first locks.

The approach to this lock is the most dangerous of them all, because of the currents, tides and outflow from the locks meeting in the same place. There are two tugboats that stay with the ships up until they are secured by the locomotives in the locks, just in case they start running astray. A big ship can do a lock of damage to a lock! As the ship approaches the lock, the captain and pilot are doing their best to keep it tight up against the center wall. They hook the ship up to the locomotives on either side with cables. In the past, these locomotives actually pulled the ships through. Now the ships are too big and the locomotives just keep the ship centered in the locks, while the ship provides its own power to move through.

It was cool to see the lock gates close behind us and then watch it fill. We heard that it takes only 8 minutes for the lock to fill, but it seemed like longer. It took us almost an hour to go through each lock. When you consider the hook up of the locomotives, moving into the lock, closing the gates, filling the lock, opening the next gates, moving out of the lock... it takes a while. As we went through ourselves, another container ship came in alongside us. When I saw the size of the container ship, just a short ways away from us, I started to realize the magnitude of all of this.

The Disney Magic is considered a "Panamax" - the largest size of ship that can go through the canal. There are only 24 inches on either side of the ship as we went through. An ocean-going vessel, and the clearance is only 24 inches on a side! It is hard to fathom that they do this all of the time. As we looked behind us, we could see two ships coming up through the channel to come into the locks after us. The Canal is clearly well-used and a vital part of shipping routes.

After the first Miraflores lock, the locomotives go up a small hill as we moved into the second lock and process was repeated. This lock was right next to the Visitor's Center, which was packed with people. Seeing a cruise ship go through the Canal, especially one as distinctive as the Disney Magic, is clearly a popular event. Everyone, including the workers on the other ships, had their cameras out to take pictures of us. The Disney photographers were also out on the locks taking pictures of the ship as well, to sell to us later. (I must confess, I did buy a couple!)

After about two hours we were clear of the Miraflores locks and into the small Miraflores Lake. It was an incredible beginning to our journey through the Panama Canal. The scale of the operation is unbelievable, along with the age. Just incredible to move past the building with the date "1913" and know that this is the same design, same locks that have been in operation since then.


  1. OK - technical question here... If the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are at sea level, why do you need a lock system? Shouldn't you be able to have a short 'river' between the oceans?

  2. Apparently, the Pacific side has tides and the Atlantic side does not, so there is a level difference. In addition, it would be a 50 mile long 'river' carved through a mountainous region. I'm tapped out for explanation, you'll have to consult other resources for more info. :)

  3. The other reason for the locks is that the canal crosses the continental divide. They would have had to blast through very unstable rock for many miles to make a 'flat' canal work.


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